The co­conut oil back­lash

Sales are boom­ing. But in­creas­ing re­ports say this fave doesn’t live up to the hype

Women's Health Australia - - NOVEMBER 2017 - By Anthea Eng­land WH

Put down the bliss ball: let’s nut this out

It’s in our bliss balls and raw ve­gan slices. It’s taken up per­ma­nent res­i­dence in our pantry. It splashes out of the jar dur­ing sum­mer and mag­i­cally goes rock-solid in win­ter. But is co­conut oil re­ally the won­der in­gre­di­ent it’s cracked up to be?

Well, no, ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts. In June, the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion made head­lines world­wide when it named co­conut oil as an ex­am­ple of a foodie trend with­out sci­ence behind it. Oh.

Be­fore we go into why, a lit­tle back­ground on the clear stuff: “Co­conut oil is the fat com­po­nent of co­conut flesh (co­pra),” ex­plains nu­tri­tion­ist Teresa Boyce. “[It] can be ob­tained from crush­ing and press­ing the co­pra to ex­tract the oil.” Yep, the un­re­fined oil is free from nasty chem­i­cals, which is a big bonus. But, while it doesn’t have scary in­gre­di­ents, it does have a whole lot of sat­u­rated fat. In fact, sat fats make up a star­tling 92 per cent of co­conut oil. Bot­tom line: that coco-rich bliss ball might not be so bliss­ful for your heart.

“While co­conut oil has been claimed as a su­per­food, the new re­port from the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion backs what the sci­ence has been say­ing for some time,” says Nicole Dy­nan, an ac­cred­ited prac­tis­ing di­eti­tian and spokesper­son for the Di­eti­tians As­so­ci­a­tion of Australia. “We know co­conut oil can raise our un­healthy LDL choles­terol, which raises the risk of heart dis­ease.”

Break it down

Be­fore you aban­don your stash, co­conut oil does have its good points. It may raise un­healthy LDL choles­terol, but it also slightly

in­creases the healthy HDL kind, too. This means it’s less wor­ry­ing than your regs sat­u­rated fats. However, that doesn’t give us a free pass to slosh it around in our food, says Dy­nan. “There are much health­ier oil choices around.” (She sug­gests ex­tra vir­gin olive, av­o­cado, canola and macadamia oils, which are low in sat fat and high in the healthy, un­sat­u­rated kind.)

So how much is too much? Aussie guide­lines state that sat­u­rated fat should be less than 10 per cent of your total en­ergy in­take. So for an av­er­age adult, that’s less than

24g a day. One 20ml ta­ble­spoon of co­conut oil? More than 18g of sat fat, which blitzes much of your in­take in one tropical bite. By com­par­i­son, ex­tra vir­gin olive oil has just 2.8g per ta­ble­spoon.

Co­conut oil is also very en­er­gy­dense – we’re talk­ing 720kj per ta­ble­spoon. (A heads-up: many other com­mon cook­ing oils, such as canola and ex­tra vir­gin olive, clock up sim­i­lar kilo­joule counts.)

Weigh­ing it up

Of course, how much you eat de­pends on your life­style – you’ll have dif­fer­ent needs to the wo­man next to you at the whole­food cafe. “[It] re­ally is de­pen­dent on the in­di­vid­ual: their health goals, health com­plaints and cur­rent nu­tri­tion sta­tus,” says Boyce. “I have pa­tients who con­sume co­conut oil sev­eral times a week, then I have fata-dapted ath­letes who con­sume it daily as a ma­jor fuel source.” Here’s the thing: we def­i­nitely shouldn’t be afraid of healthy fats – it’s just that ex­perts are still de­bat­ing whether this fat is actually all that healthy.

MCT me

An­other rea­son co­conut oil has reached cult sta­tus? Google it to find plenty of pages pro­claim­ing the ben­e­fits of the medium-chain triglyc­erides (MCTS) in it – es­sen­tially, the par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tion of fatty acids within co­conut oil, which be­have in a spe­cific way in the body.

MCTS can cer­tainly be a great work­out buddy, says Boyce. “They ex­hibit health ben­e­fits in­clud­ing ap­petite re­duc­tion and weight loss, im­proved cog­ni­tion, im­mune sup­port, in­creased en­ergy and im­proved ath­letic per­for­mance.”

However, Dy­nan ar­gues that “much of the ev­i­dence used to sup­port the health ben­e­fits of co­conut comes from his­tor­i­cal re­search on MCT oils. Ad­vo­cates have re­lied on these find­ings, ap­ply­ing them to co­conut oil, when in fact, co­conut oil wasn’t used in the re­search.” This isn’t to say it

doesn’t have the claimed well­be­ing ben­e­fits, it’s just the ev­i­dence is cur­rently a bit thin on the ground.

Some­thing the ex­perts do agree on, though: co­conut oil can be a de­li­cious ad­di­tion to a meal; plus it’s a great ve­gan in­gre­di­ent for sweet treats. Be­yond food, it’s an all-nat­u­ral skin saviour, re­mov­ing make-up and re­hy­drat­ing like some sort of dou­ble-won­der wipe.

So should we just move the jar into our beauty cab­i­nets instead? Not nec­es­sar­ily. “It’s like ev­ery­thing in nu­tri­tion; it’s about hav­ing a bal­anced ap­proach,” says Boyce. “My tip is to con­sume sat­u­rated fats in mod­er­a­tion, as close to na­ture as pos­si­ble and as a part of a bal­anced diet.” And that’s where co­conut oil’s ben­e­fit re­ally lies – it isn’t from a test tube, it’s from a tree. So there’s no need to trash it. Just save the big­ger por­tions for your skin, not your stir-fry.

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